Michael Marshall Smith is an author from the UK who has penned short stories, novels, and screenplays. He started things of right with his first published story, "The Man Who Drew Cats", winning the British Fantasy Award in 1991 for "Best Short Story" and from there he was off and running. He is just one of the great authors contributing to Dark Regions Press’ new anthology, I Am The Abyss. He took a few moments out of his day to answer some of my questions about his story for that book, his background, writing, and more.
BMS - Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Michael. Now before authors began to write, they were readers, so what were some of your earliest literary loves? Who inspired you and made you want to keep on reading?
The earliest writer who really sucked me in was Enid Blyton, the English children’s book author. She’s not fashionable these days, but god she could pump them out — and she had a firm grip on how to tell a story and engage the imagination (as I discovered anew when reading some of her books for even younger readers to my son, a few years ago). In my mid-teens I discovered genre fiction, people like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, and a few horror short stories, and Douglas Adams, but also P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler — both of whom I loved, and was later surprised to learn had actually been at the same school in England at the same time. In my late teens I became a huge fan of Kingsley Amis, and then in my final year at college a friend turned me on to Stephen King, who was the gateway drug into “horror” — people like Peter Straub, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell. A few years later I swerved into reading mystery — people like James Lee Burke, Jim Thompson and James Ellroy. Then somehow I sidestepped into more “literary” writers like Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff.
The story of my life (when it comes to reading and writing) is a fundamental inability or unwillingness to pick a lane and stick to it. In real life I tend to be far more dogged. It may not look like a path to anybody else, but it feels like one to me.
BMS – What is your favorite book or story and why?
That's SO hard to answer. Impossible, in fact. It varies over time and depending what mood I’m in, and which life currents I’m surrounded by. There are books or stories that I hold up for years as a firm favorite, then I revisit and discover I can’t find what I used to there; conversely, sometimes I retry something I didn’t really get and realize that I just needed to be in a different place. Good books hit you on a very personal level, and who you are changes over time. It ought to, at least. If you twist my arm I’m going to say LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis, even though I haven’t read it in a long time.
BMS - Do you recall when you first thought about writing your own stories? Was it a sudden epiphany, a gradual thing, or something else entirely?
There were two epiphanies, I think. The first was when I was pretty young, very taken with Enid Blyton’s “… of Adventure” series, her books for slightly older kids. I guess I would have been around twelve. I started writing something similar, got it up to twenty pages or so, then drifted from it. Nearly ten years later I discovered Stephen King when that friend made me read THE TALISMAN, and it was his books that really made me think: "This. I want to do something like this". I wrote my first short story a few weeks later.
BMS - What was your first sale and to what market?
The first story I ever sold was called THE DARK LAND, which went to a good friend of mine, Nicholas Royle, who was self-publishing an anthology (long before indie publishing even really existed). Though the second story I sold was the very first I’d ever written, and actually came out first — THE MAN WHO DREW CATS. Stephen Jones published that and it was lucky enough to win the British Fantasy Award, which was a very important early piece of encouragement for me.
BMS - What is the best thing about being a writer?
When it goes well, I can’t imagine why you’d do anything else. You get to sit at home, hang out with the cats, smoke and drink coffee and create worlds and people and both sculpt what happens to them but also — and this is far more fun and exciting — watch while some part of your mind does the work for you without conscious intervention. Those moments are the best part, for me: the days where you’re not even really doing it, just spectating. When you go to Safeway to get groceries and ideas or whole scenes just drop into your head, as if you’ve plucked them off the shelves.
BMS - What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
All the other parts. The times when the creative part of your mind is silent, when the muse is absent, when nothing you do seems to work and you’re convinced you’ve written your last and that everything you did before was crap anyway. The insecurity that comes from laying yourself and your imagination on the line time after time, knowing that you may be rebuffed. The very strong sense that instead of lurking at home making shit up, you should be out there in the world doing real things. Writing as a career asks a lot of a person when it comes to resilience, self-discipline, and the ability to hope... against what may sometimes seem like insuperable odds. You’re going to take some very hard knocks, even long after you assumed you’d got somewhere.
BMS - If I had no idea who you were and asked you the dreaded question: “So what kind of stories do you write?” how would you answer that?
By turning round and walking out and going into the nearest pub. That’s the question all writers dread, as you know. Or perhaps some don’t: I guess some have a good, easily-communicable pitch about themselves and their wares. I should probably have one, but I don’t. Partly because I’ve written a lot of different types of stuff — “horror”, science fiction, thrillers, semi-supernatural, offbeat “literary”. To me they’ve all been part of the same thing… attempts to entertain, while I explore what it’s like to be human and experience life (both good and bad), usually framed by events in which the “real” world is intruded upon by something strange. But before I got halfway through saying all that, I suspect the person who asked the question would have turned around and walked away to the nearest pub...
BMS - If I asked you for three stories or books that would give a reader who is unfamiliar with your work the best representation of you as an author, what would those three be?
That’s tricky. There’s a lot of variety, as noted. It’s hard for me to pick amongst the short stories, as there’s nearly a hundred of them and some of the better-known were written quite a long time ago now. But a good range of novels would include my most recent (HANNAH GREEN AND HER UNFEASIBLY MUNDANE EXISTENCE), THE INTRUDERS or THE STRAW MEN from the thriller and semi-supernatural side, and maybe ONLY FORWARD — my first, and still a lot of people’s favorite, it would appear. If you don’t like *any* of those then you’re probably just not going to like my books!
BMS - Now on to I Am The Abyss. What first attracted you to the book, to do something for it?
Chris the publisher made a great pitch for the book, and both the idea behind it — and the fact that each story would be illustrated by someone who’s both a great artist and an old friend of mine — made it impossible to resist.
BMS - Your story, “The Burning Woods” what can you tell me about it? Give me the “elevator pitch” on it.
It’d be hard to describe without spoilers, and I don’t really have a pitch on it — except that I think it’s one of the better stories that I’ve written in a long time. I hope that’s good enough. It’s about a man who turns up at an out-of-season resort in the mountains, and what happens next.
BMS - Do you see yourself revisiting the characters, locations, or themes of this story in later work?
Not sure. The location, the environment, the atmosphere, the main character — all of those things arrived in my head without me consciously reaching for them. I could certainly see wanting to go back there, though I’m not sure there story as it came out really lends itself to that. I suspect this story stands alone.
BMS - Any words of advice, or even warnings, you would like to give to beginning authors and for first time editors?
Well, they’re very different jobs, and I’ve never really done much editing. For writers it’s pretty simple: read a lot, and write a lot. And then, when you’re ready, seek out some people who read and write the same kind of thing, and start sharing. It’s scary, but you won’t get anywhere without it. For editing… I think the first thing to realize is that editing is a very real job, and a unique set of skills, and meet and talk to some people who’ve done it for a while, and done it well. Just banging some stories together isn’t editing, and the result won’t serve either you or the writers. Luckily Chris Morey *does* know what he’s doing, and I AM THE ABYSS is looking fantastic.
BMS - What is the best way for people to learn more about you and your work?
My Web site… www.michaelmarshallsmith.com
BMS - Thanks again for your time today, and for all the wonderful stories you’ve given us over the years.
A pleasure — nice talking to you!
Michael Marshall Smith has a new novella entitled The Burning Woods in the new Dark Regions Press title I AM THE ABYSS.